Dealing with student racism: Five ways teachers can deal with student on student racism.
‘Oi, you! Yes, you! I don’t like P*kis’. As a four-year-old in the playground of my infants’ schools, some twenty-four years on, I still remember those words. This was my first ever experience of racism and I still recall spending hours trying to scrub my skin until it turned white. I was afraid to return to school the next day, but I reluctantly told my teacher why I was so upset. The rest was a blur but yes, as a four-year-old I began my journey of identity. An identity that I now revel in, a heritage I am now proud of and an education system that I am still privileged to be a part of.
Racism is the hottest potato in the world right now isn’t it? It has the uncanny ability to abracadabra it’s way in and out of social and political agendas with such ease. However, at the grassroots level, to target the core of the problem we must attack its rotten core. In schools and more widely in pedagogical practice, the role of educators is now to reflect, change, rectify and challenge their own biases as well as those in the wider curriculum. Against the backdrop of the prevent strategy, the Windrush scandal, Grenfell Tower, Brexit, comments by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, Islamophobia in the Conservative party, the rise of far-right nationalism and extremism, racism has not vanished. Many have given it a ‘intellectual’ veneer through the rise of xenophobic politics and selective silencing on issues of inequality and injustice including Black Lives Matter. Schools and teachers are placed in a particular predicament, one that requires more training, more dialogue and more reflection. As educators, we cannot wait for the doors of social justice to be opened up for us, and as Malcolm X once said, “Early in life I had learned that if you want something, you had better make some noise”. It is time for us to create a racket!
Schools do not exist in some sort of socio-political vacuum. The social and political spheres outside of schools overtly permeate into our classrooms and shape our own attitudes, values, norms and those of our students. A school should be a sanctuary for all, but racism is an unfortunate and regular occurrence in many educational establishments. It would be immoral and arrogant of us to deny the existence of racism in education. According to the Guardian, in 2018, 4,590 cases of racial abuse among school students lead to a fixed or permanent exclusion, up from 4,085 in 2017. The Guardian also found in an analysis of 39 local authorities, a similar rise in racist incidents was documented, surging from 2,694 to 3,651 in three years. Historical records have shown that children from Black Caribbean backgrounds are more likely to be excluded from schools thus leaving education with fewer qualifications than their peers. This is also the case for Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils. Research from the Runnymede Trust also found how ‘draconian’ zero tolerance policies which implicitly targeted Black pupils. Schools are not immune from racism and despite our best efforts as educators, so much more needs to be done.
I will be drawing on several personal experiences both as a student and teacher in helping create five tangible steps to help us challenge student racism within schools.
1. Being sincere to the victim – they are a victim and racism is a terribly traumatic experience. I can recall one experience where a teacher claimed a child was ‘making up stories’, that he was ‘too emotional anyway’ and that ‘this is how it is in the real world’. The incident was actually terrifying. This student, who happened to be a Muslim had bacon and sausage rolls thrown at him as well as a load of racist abuse hurled his way. As a TA at the time, I was visibly moved because I thought such appalling behaviours could be relegated to the archives of history. Here we had a young lad, soaked in tears and trying to make sense of why no one would believe him. The teacher dealing with the incident was adamant this was not a racist incident; his own anti-paperwork stance took precedence. Considering there was a backlog of over a dozen pseudo-racist remarks and attacks being documented by this lad, he was repeatedly questioned, asked to reconsider his version of events and branded ‘sensitive’. He was the victim; he never initiated this behaviour and he should have been given the time and consideration. Racism is a such a traumatic experience but having the bravery to put your faith in the hands of the system requires such strength of character. This strength of character and sign of civic responsibility deserves acknowledging, applauding and tackling with care and consideration. If you are dealing with a racist incident, just as you would deal with sexist or homophobic incident, the principles are the same. There is a victim and an aggressor, sanction and re-educate the aggressor and provide support and compassion for the victim.
2. Following up on facts – in any incident, the facts are absolutely paramount. In some schools, racism may be the rarest of occurrences and hearsay can exacerbate and amplify a shocking event. There will be conflicting reports and the rumour mill will be spiralling out of control, however as teachers we need factual accounts of the incident before we can make any judgements or take any action. The emotive and traumatic nature of these racist incidents means facts aren’t necessarily so easy to come by. I can remember a time where a teacher, and to his defence, mispronounced my name. He then muttered, “I struggle with Asian names”. This was not racist, we laughed it off and eventually be got my name right but several students in the class took exception and made a formal complaint. I was hauled into a meeting and state my version of events and this teacher was taken out of every lesson where he had Asian students (consider the context, 40% Asian). I was caught in the eye of the storm and defied by peers in being honest and explaining nothing this teacher said was racist in any way, shape or form. These racist incidents require a cool head, a real objective position and someone who will analyse facts and come to the right conclusion. Having a factual basis can help clear misunderstanding, begin a period of intervention or take firm sanctions. When emotions are running high, as teacher we must use our diligence and integrity to help find the right outcome, based on factual evidence for all parties.
3. Dialogue with parents – Parents need to know about racist incidents in schools. Establishing contact with parents of both the victim and perpetrator will alleviate the ‘us vs. them’ binary that such incidents can create. Parental support will prove to be invaluable as you begin to not only deal with the racist incident but also the aftermath. The next steps are, say, an exclusion is handed out, will be to create some form of closure to the situation. This may be a sincere apology or a reintegration meeting, but parents are key. Contrary to popular belief, schools, albeit an important agent of socialisation, they are not the most influential. Parents, peers and even the media have a more sustained imprint on the norms and values of young people. The school day is only a finite number of hours and much of our student’s experiences and formation of their opinions exist outside of the immediate vicinity of the classroom. This parental contact can really prove vital in establishing an understanding of the perpetrator’s ideas and also the victims reactions. I found calling home after a racist incident was always well received by parents, who wanted to hear it first-hand from a teacher, who is armed with facts rather than their child who may not even tell them what has happened. Establishing this rapport with parents is almost like staring into the souls of our students. We can then integrate parents into the dialogue, rebuild broken relationships and really have a transparent conversation about moving forwards.
4. Re-education - assemblies, token history weeks and guest speakers alone are not enough. A sustained, holistic social movement to target racism and implicit biases is what is required. During Holocaust week, my school invited a guest speaker to give us an insight into the life and times of the atrocities of millions that were persecuted during World War Two. We were in Year 8, mere 12/13-year olds, with no real understanding or comprehension of the Holocaust. The stories that this guest speaker told us were moving but we never followed this up! This was the first and last time WW2 was mentioned until late Year 11. A great opportunity was missed and confronting our own racial biases could have been so profoundly different if this assembly was followed up. Schools must begin to register an interest in the principles of anti-racism top down, as well as bottom up. The staff recruitment policies, prayer facilities, support for our EAL staff and learners, how we cater for the needs of our SEN students and staff. This is not asking anyone to learn Martin Luther King Jr’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech off by heart and beat every equality drum under the hot son! Need tangible and visible changes that manifest themselves into how we deal with incidents of discrimination. Re-educating ourselves as well as our students into the principles of acceptance, understanding and realigning our principles with compassion and empathy comes from education and re-education. We can fight discrimination with education.
5. Reintegration – For me, this is the most important phase in any incident of racism. How can we move forwards? If we have handed out sanctions, given both parties time to reflect and consulted all relevant stakeholders, what are the next steps? During my NQT year I was racially abused by a student who was subsequently suspended. I was furious but my anger gradually became empathy after I had time to reflect. After such incidents, as educators we need to be considering how we reframe them and attain some sort of positive outcome. Intolerance breeds further intolerance and we cannot fight any form of discrimination with anger. The reintegration phase for both the perpetrator and victim is a real honest cathartic to talk out differences but also embrace differences. To assess commonalities and find similarities and settle the issue once and for all. These racist incidents are unsavoury, unwelcome but they should never be unaccounted for. With sanctions must come a phase of reflection and then reintegration.
Suffering racial abuse is an indescribable feeling. The pain, trauma and deep shock it creates can form chasms between people, communities and societies. We all need to do more to prevent these incidents becoming commonplace in our schools and wider public discourse. As teachers our role extends beyond the classroom to model positive behaviours that foster the principles of acceptance, compassion and empathy for all. Although there is no universal model or pedagogical measuring stick to assess them success of the techniques we apply, we need to be mindful of the victims. In supporting these victims of racist abuse, we need to promote a culture of acceptance within our wider school community. Simply holding the odd Rosa Parks assembly is not enough, anti-racism comes through everyday thoughts, world views and interactions with one another.
In our battle against racism and reflections on our own practices, no one, especially no child should be left behind. Our policymakers may not open doors for a more accepting future, but teachers can leave it ajar for our young people to grow up in a society that seeks the equality of all and the supremacy of none.
Thank you for reading.